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Kelowna teachers discuss reality of classrooms

Teachers at Pearson Elementary school have an offer for Premier Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender.

Visit their school. Spend some time in a classroom. Get a feel for what happens at the students’ level of B.C.’s education system.

Then say if they still feel that schools are adequately funded.

“(Clark) needs 15 minutes in a classroom— it wouldn’t take a day,” said Allison MacAfee. “Just come visit the classroom.”

“And not for a photo op, where they’re opening a book and everyone is sitting still,” added Isabel Vicente. “For a real day.”

Both Allison MacAfee and Isabel Vicente have been teaching for 20 years.

It’s only the half-way mark of their careers, but also more than enough time to witness what they describe to be a seismic shift in the way B.C. schools are run and the opportunities that students are able to access. Especially at schools where the difference between the haves and have nots is so obvious.

The familiar battle cries over class size and composition aren’t just talking points or the fodder of a never-ending legal battle at schools like Pearson, where a number of students in each classroom are facing challenges of varying degrees.

“It goes from full-out autism, to someone who has speech issues, or someone who is an English language learner,” said Vicente.

Every case is different, she said, prompting a story about a student who goes into severe rages.

When the little boy’s temper spikes, other students “evacuate” their class and file into a neighbouring room and wait out the emotional outpouring.

Given that there’s rarely a counsellor on site—one stretches duties between three schools—it’s the only way they can deal with the situation.

“All we can do is have each other’s backs because there’s nobody else to help us,” said Vicente.

Another teacher, who asked that her name not be used, said that she had a classroom 10 years ago, where there were 24 students.

Six of those kids had individualized learning needs, which kept her scrambling to meet their educational goals and push the rest through the right hoops.

That was her worst year, she said, but the ones that have followed haven’t been much better. And her co-workers agreed.

“Even parents are starting to notice,” said MacAfee.

“I had a class of 21 students and parents who know me, and know I’m an experienced teacher, walk around the class and say, ‘You need help in here.’ And I said, ‘Yes, yes I do.’ Because we have students who need more.”

The need for more help is particularly noticeable in those early years.

“Composition, in the primary years is very frustrating,” she said.

“These kids need help, and they’re not getting it because people who do the assessments are pushing them off.”

Offering an example, MacAfee, pointed to a student she had last year in her Grade 1 class.

“His kindergarten teacher knew, and I knew. You just had to look at him: He’s a resource student, meaning he’s special needs,” she said.

That student hadn’t been evaluated by the time he was seated in MacAfee’s classroom, so there was no assistance.

“Eventually we got an outside assessment done from Interior Health and it said he was working at a pre-kindergarten level going into Grade 2; never mind the fact his speech and fine motor skills were behind,” she said.

But, despite noticeable challenges, the document said: “We will reassess in three or four years, and maybe at that point he will qualify for assistance.”

No extra funding or help was designated to that student.

“I think of that particular child every day that I’m here. It’s so sad,” she said.

“We can’t retain him, and it wouldn’t help him anyway. He needs a worker one on one…When you sat side-by-side with him he could do the work.

“He’s such a happy, nice kid. But I can’t spend my time that way.

“There are 20-plus more kids to teach. And you know what happens to those kids? Behaviours come out because they get frustrated.

“Then they start hitting, and acting out—it’s heart breaking.”

The mother of that particular boy is amazing, she said. But a single mother who works all the time can only do so much, which returns the pressure to the school system.

“The mother looked into private school because she knew she could get help for him, one on one,” MacAfee said.

“But she couldn’t do it. And she said she didn’t think she should have to, and I agree.”

Each student in B.C. should have access to a solid education, every teacher on the Pearson picket line said Wednesday. That, however, isn’t happening. With special demands sucking up the resources of teachers, those students who are regular learners are getting less and less attention.

“Some days after I’ve spent the whole day dealing with one of my (high needs) students, I think to myself, ‘Oh no. I never had time to say ‘good job’ to so-and-so, or ask this girl how she was doing,’” said another teacher, who also asked to not be named.

Those students who don’t demonstrate extra need, are “just getting pushed through.”

Strangely, it’s a completely different situation just a short drive away.

There are schools in the Mission and in Glenmore that are chock-a-block with supplies and opportunity.

One teacher, who also asked he not be named, pointed out that one school in the Mission literally was able to send something into space as part of their classroom experiment.

“You look at that and think, ‘Wow, this school is so well funded,’ but it’s not that the school is well funded. It’s that the parents have kicked in,” he said.

“That’s great for them, but it creates the illusion that the government is paying for the technology, the smart boards, etc. when it’s actually B.C. parents or teachers paying for the resources.”

It’s the early stages of a two-tier school system, and the reason why the teachers gathered on the picket line said they are not giving in to the government.

It’s not, he said, about wages. Reports indicated that both sides of the current labour dispute are close on the matter of earnings and teachers on the picket lines seemed relatively at ease with that development.

“We’re not paid terribly. We’re not underpaid, our raises aren’t the same as inflation and our buying power is much less than it was, but it’s not terrible,” he said, noting that he left a job up north to follow his less lucrative passion for teaching, and he’s OK with that choice.

Others there pointed out that they do it for the students. “We’re here for class size and composition,” said Vicente. “And more money for these children. I’m not sitting around here for me.

“I’m losing money for other children and fighting for my kid too, who has issues learning and who doesn’t have the help.”

It’s been indicated that the two sides remain millions of dollars apart on benefits and class size and composition, with the government offering to continue its existing Learning Improvement Fund, which amounts to $75 million annually, compared to the BCTF’s proposal for a $225 million annual fund on class size and composition.

That $225 million would be primarily used to hire additional teachers and support staff.

It’s still unclear how the two sides will find common ground, but it is possible that teachers will be able to return to their classrooms.

Education Minister Peter Fassbender issued a statement Thursday asking the union to consult teachers in the coming days about the possibility of putting the strike on hold if the two sides agree to enter into mediation.

A day earlier, Fassbender asked the federation and the BC Public School Employers’ Association, which bargains on behalf of the government, to suspend any strikes or lockouts for two weeks while agreeing to mediation.

Fassbender said that would require teachers to agree to delay dealing with potentially expensive contract grievances linked to a recent court case.

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